by Francine Cohen

If you see me at Tales you'll surely notice a giant grin on my face. Of course it's because I am back in New Orleans, a city that I love, alongside you, and I am so very happy to see you again whether it's been 12 hours since we last spoke or 12 months.  

But that smile also represents something else...great pleasure and pride in the honor that has been bestowed upon me – the founder and Editor in Chief of and ardent industry chronicler/consultant-and Hollis Bulleit (Bulleit), and Elayne Duff (Diageo), and Lisa Laird (Laird’s), and Ivy Mix (Speed Rack). You see, next Friday, during Tales of the Cocktail 2014, the five of us will be the third group of women inducted into the Dame Hall of Fame.

After listening to lots of behind-closed-doors buzz about perceived blatant favoritism and politics of popularity tied to the Tales Awards the Dame Hall of Fame, inductee announcement is a breath of fresh air, coming with none of that pettiness and filled with respect, love, and admiration. At this annual event, this year hosted at Ruth’s Chris  Steak House, Tales celebrates the strides women have made in the spirits industry and honors five women in the industry who are innovating and changing the way we view the craft. 

That changing view and those innovations have come about thanks to all of us inductees taking the road less travelled, attempting to build a better mousetrap, not accepting mediocrity, counting on one another, and, as Dame Hall of Fame inductee and 2014 Ruth Fertel Pioneer Award Winner Lisa Laird says, "Employing passion and perseverance." 

Passion and perseverance took Ruth Fertel from a one woman show to an internationally recognized name, making her eponymous restaurant a perfect setting for this year's luncheon.  Helen Mackey, Vice President of Menu Strategy and Innovation for Ruth’s Chris Steak House notes, "We are thrilled to host the annual Dame Hall of Fame lunch at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.  Ruth Fertel, our founder, was a single mom and incredible female entrepreneur who mortgaged her home to buy a steak house on a dream in 1965  - she went on to become known as the ‘First Lady or ‘Dame’ of Steak’ as her one restaurant turned into a global restaurant brand.  For this reason, we celebrate her spirit and fortitude by working with Tales of the Cocktail to honor likeminded dames.”

My fellow inductees and I are of a single mind, having pushed aside plenty of naysayers to live our dreams and forge ahead.  I’ve had plenty of people tell me that my circuitous career path doesn’t make sense to them and yet, repeatedly, people come knocking at my door for advice on and support of their business and others employ me to write about various spirits and hospitality industry ventures.  And Laird, who has supported the Dame Hall of Fame since its inaugural year as a much needed opportunity for the women in this industry to bond together and support each other, faced prejudices both within her own family as well as from the outside world. 

Elayne Duff doesn’t see the past as immutable, instead she notes, “As you know our industry is mainly dominated by men. I don’t believe it is because men have held us back. I believe it is because woman just didn't see the opportunity for them to succeed.   Until the likes of Julie Reiner and Audrey Saunders came along. The Dame Hall of Fame is important because it is recognizing women, who are helping to blaze a trail for the next generation of girls entering the industry and giving them a path to follow.” 

Hollis Bulleit was fortunate to find her family’s path fit with her career desires.  Yet even with her name on the bottle and familial support as she stepped up to her generation’s responsibilities within the brand she sees the importance of an institution like the Dame Hall of Fame. She explains, "I have a BA from Smith College, and I feel like women centric awards are just as important as women centric places of education. I learned some really important things at Smith: women are not men. We have a different way of executing tasks, and different strengths in the workforce. Sometimes as women, we stand back, we ‘over’ multitask... if we accomplish something we do not take time to honor it. The Dame Hall of Fame addresses this potential shortcoming in us as women in this industry. Mostly by making us sit down in a room full of amazing women, share a lovely meal, and celebrate the closing gap of women making strides in breaking yet another glass ceiling."

Laird unintentionally shattered the glass ceiling when she took over the family business as she notes, “My focus was on continuing my family’s legacy.  I never looked at myself as a pioneer for women in this industry." On the other hand Duff had different expectations to battle through.  She explains, “My story is little different than most.  First of all I am a mom and a wife, and I became a mom at the exact year that I became an Ambassador, which many may have thought was not the most brilliant move (including myself). While most people who become Ambassadors or Mixologists come from the bar side of the industry, I did not; I came from the business side. It was Steve Olson who inspired me to jump into this world; I took the BAR course 5 months after my daughter Dylan was born and learned everything I could about spirits, and it was Jim Meehan who encouraged me to work hard at becoming a mixologist and it was Julie Reiner, Lynette Marrero, and, most currently, my husband Mr. Duff who answered many annoying questions and gave me great career advice when I needed it.  Without these mentors and many, many more I would not have gotten to where I am today.”

Ivy Mix is known for mentoring up and coming bartenders around the world, yet she still humbly finds herself in awe of this award and says, “I am being inducted with 4 other ladies that I respect so much. To be considered to be on the same page with these other women is a shock and an honor.”  

Once the shock wore off Mix acknowledged that her work with Speed Rack has had a positive impact on ladies everywhere in the industry.   She hopes that her role as co-founder of the charity bartending competition allows people to appreciate the paths that she’s chosen. She says, “I work at Clover Club with Julie Reiner who might as well be the Matriarch of the Hall of Fame and I've done a lot to try to work hard as a feminine force in this industry. I am constantly in awe of the other ladies I see across the country and the world - I get to go to all the bars and meet all of the people and I am continually impressed with what everyone is doing. I hope to keep holding standards and not budge in my ideals and encourage others to do what they believe in. Anything is possible in this industry, it just is a matter of making it happen.” 

Each of us made our place in the Dame Hall of Fame Class of 2014 happen in our own unique way. Hollis perhaps puts it best as she says, "It is special to be inducted the year after Julie Reiner received The (Dame Hall of Fame) Pioneer Award. She is an out and proud woman in this industry and has inspired me for some time now. Quite frankly, I was shocked last year when she mentioned my name in her speech... and I feel like I'm kind of doing her proud and other LGBT industry members by continuing that legacy in 2014. After following the golden rules of drinking responsibly and being LDA compliant, there is no "right" way to champion your brand. I was able to observe this industry, and accept any limitations that people may have thought that I had as a women, and turn it to my advantage. During a time when everyone at WhiskeyFest said that "right" way to drink whiskey was "neat" and everyone was wearing kilts, I championed the opposite: the right way to responsibly imbibe is to test the liquid through exhaustive curiosity and creativity... potentially while wearing a large homemade headdress and peacocking about as a 2020 flapper."

While you won’t see me dressed up as a flapper (I’m not really a costume person), you will find me happiest flapping my lips as I discuss with my fellow inductees, and the industry at large, what it is about the business of the hospitality business that makes our world such a special place. Perhaps there’s some truth to outsiders’ belief that we live a charmed and glamorous life and are always the life of the party, but the real truth about what makes this job, and this Dame Hall of Fame honor, so special for me and my four fellow inductees, is that we get to live and breathe our passions and build a community of support that furthers our goals. Not one of the four inductees I interviewed for this story neglected to thank their colleagues for getting them to this point in their careers.  And that may just be the secret to success.  

Ladies (and gentlemen), mind these wise words of Laird’s as she concludes, “We are part of an incredible sisterhood, one that I wasn’t sure would ever come to fruition in my time.  Ladies....find your niche, follow your passion and always have each other’s back.”

****Hosted by Tales of the Cocktail and LUPEC, this special four-course, five-cocktail luncheon will honor the newest inductees to the Dame Hall of Fame as well as the Ruth Fertel Pioneer Award. The event will be held on Friday July 18 from noon till 2:30 at Ruth’s Chris Steak House as a part of the 12th annual Tales of the Cocktail®. Tickets to this special event are limited and can be purchased online at for $65.00. Participating brands include: Zacapa Rum, Bulleit Bourbon, Laird’s Applejack, NY Distilling, St. Germain, Cherry Heering, and Chandon.

Read more from Tales of the Cocktail.